How To Avoid Falling Prey To 'Microsleep'

Our bodies can make life-or-death decisions for us on our behalf. Here's why, and how to avoid any potential disaster it can cause.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 15, 2024

Have you ever experienced that overwhelming fatigue where your body insists on sleep, regardless of your intentions? When we feel this way, our bodies often override our conscious will and make a decision on our behalf—whether we agree with it or not—leading to what's known as "microsleep." This phenomenon can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong moments.

Here's everything you need to know about microsleep, and how to avoid falling into its hazardous grasp.

What Is Microsleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, microsleep is a brief state of unconsciousness that usually lasts several seconds. As the name suggests, it often happens so quickly that those experiencing it might not even realize that they've dozed off. Unlike normal sleep, microsleep can happen at any hour—not exclusively during the night. Strangely, during microsleep, one might appear as awake with open eyes, yet the brain still fails to process information.

When we are awake, our brains typically exhibit what are known as "alpha waves," which are characterized by a moderate frequency and amplitude. These waves indicate a state of relaxed alertness, often observed when we're awake but not actively engaged in demanding tasks.

On the other hand, during sleep—particularly during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep—the brain shows "beta waves." These beta waves have a low amplitude and high frequency, resembling the brain activity seen during wakefulness. However, during REM sleep, there's also the presence of slower "theta waves," which are associated with dream activity.

Interestingly, research reveals that microsleep is a short period where brain activity consists of neither alpha nor beta waves. Instead, the brain shifts only into the slower theta rhythms—associated with REM sleep—during episodes of microsleep. This change can happen even if the person's eyes are open, explaining why many may not realize that they're briefly asleep.

The Dangers Of Microsleep

Microsleep can be incredibly dangerous, given its extreme impacts on attention and awareness. According to research, microsleep episodes are characterized by brief lapses in attention and vacant stares. These episodes are most commonly observed in those who experience excessive daytime sleepiness.

Importantly, the profound lapses in attention associated with microsleep can majorly impair our abilities to detect and respond to critical stimuli and events. This compromised ability to remain alert and vigilant exponentially increases our likelihood of making errors and accidents, particularly in situations that demand sustained attention. Such situations include:

  • Driving, especially on long, monotonous roads or during night-time trips
  • Operating heavy machinery or equipment that requires attention and fast reactions
  • Tasks that demand sustained focus, like monitoring screens or conducting precision work
  • Activities where sudden lapses in attention can cause accidents or injuries, like cooking or using sharp any objects
  • Attending lectures, meetings or classes where staying awake and alert is crucial for understanding and participation
  • Critical decision-making processes, such as parenting, care-giving or emergency response situations

Because of this, the potential ramifications of microsleep go far beyond mere drowsiness; it poses serious danger in any scenario where the momentary loss of consciousness could result in harm to yourself or others.

How To Prevent Microsleep

The National Sleep Foundation suggests that the best preventative remedy for microsleep is to prioritize your rest. Ensuring that you're always getting the right amount of sleep every night, which is anywhere between 7–9 hours for adults and teenagers, will allow you to feel alert and sharp in necessary moments.

If you find yourself struggling to maintain a healthy sleep routine and worried about potentially being affected by microsleep at the wrong time, know that you're not helpless. There are various steps you can take in your day-to-day life to make falling and staying asleep as easy as possible:

  1. No electronics before bed. Make sure to power down your TV, computer and, yes, your cellphone an hour before bed—at the very least—to minimize exposure to stimulating blue light.
  2. Establish a bedtime routine. By taking your sleep more seriously, you can enjoy better sleep as well as some relaxing, dedicated you-time. Listen to your favorite relaxing music, read a book, draw a warm bath or put on your coziest pajamas; these rituals will let your body know that it's time to wind down.
  3. No caffeine before bed. Steer clear of coffee or energy drinks from anywhere between the later afternoon and evening to prevent the jitters from disrupting your sleep.
  4. Limit your naps. Less can surprisingly be more when it comes to staying rested. The more naps you take during the day, the harder it'll be to fall asleep at night.
  5. Consistent sleep schedule. It's easier said than done, but going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day is crucial for regulating your body's internal clock and, in turn, for having better quality sleep. Make sure to use alarms and put bedtime on your to-do list.

Sleep is just as vital to our health and well-being as eating, hygiene and exercise, yet we often forget to treat it with the same level of care and importance. In neglecting this aspect of our health, we surrender ourselves to the primal needs of our bodies. However, by giving sleep the attention it deserves, we can both improve our well-being and protect ourselves and others from the dangers of microsleep—potentially saving lives in the process.

Is your inability to fall asleep increasing your microsleep risk? Take the Insomnia Severity Index to know if you need professional support.

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